Recent rumors have pointed to a 2023 expansion of the League of Legends European Championship, to add two more teams to the current line-up of 10. Whether this is in the works and how far planning has progressed is, of course, unknown. What’s certain though, is that it’s high time for the league to expand.
The LEC has stayed at 10 teams since the previous expansion in 2015 and looking at the landscape of the European scene — the international viability and viewership — it isn’t just a good time to expand. It’s the time to do so — necessary for the long-term health of the region.
The LEC is closing the gap… in the wrong direction. The region ended the 2010s on a high note, but started the new decade on a downward slope. At Worlds 2021, only one team made it to the top 8; the gulf between the LEC and top Asian teams had expanded. While part of this was bad luck for each EU team, it was clear the general level of play in Europe had degraded.
Veteran Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider believes that the ERL alone has enough talent to add value to the LEC without diluting the overall field with "free" teams.
“I do think [expansion] is a necessity,” Amazing told Inven Global. “We have such a great and vast amount of ERL infrastructure in place to the point that some of the top teams in those regional leagues do not differ from the average LEC team any longer. Precluding them from having the ability to make a proper pitch to become part of the LEC and the potential Worlds stage has effectively halted the progress we've had going for us past Season 8 when franchising was first introduced.”
In an article by Upcomer during the middle of 2021, one ERL coach offered evidence of the thinning margin.
“Karmine Corp has been playing toe-to-toe and even winning some scrims against top LEC teams,” he said. “We are at the beginning of the season, and this data does not have big relevance, but it is a way to see how close some teams are to the LEC level.”
And that’s just Karmine Corp. Several of the top EU Masters have been reportedly able to punch at the weight of LEC teams.
While the ERLs might not necessarily field a complete five-man line-up off the bat, the leagues have been known for fruitful talent development, which in itself adds tremendous value to the LEC. Think of all the names we’ve seen come from ERLs just this year: Raphaël "Targamas" Crabbé, William "UNF0RGIVEN" Nieminen, and Victor "Flakked" Lirola, among others. Vincent "Vetheo" Berrié looks like another potential superstar after a little over a year. More teams in the LEC means more saws for finding and developing diamonds in the rough. With more novices able to condition themselves to the LEC level, the region becomes ever stronger.
Expansion could also help address the contract jail situation the league has found itself in. Though the community’s gotten used to it, it’s still insane that proven winners like Martin "Rekkles" Larsson and Yasin "Nisqy" Dinçer are without LEC spots this year. Next to them, we have “just teamless” players like Juš "Crownshot" Marušič, Henk "Advienne" Reijenga, and Oskar "Vander" Bogdan. Throw some of those players together with an eager-to-spend organization like Karmine Corp or BIG, and you could easily have some more championship contenders.
More strong teams means better conditioning for whoever Europe’s top dog is. Remember: the LPL has bad teams as well — a lot of them. The suffering of Team WE and LGD Gaming compares with Astralis (almost). Korea used to have 16 teams for OGN The Champions, with organizations like Team NB that were almost a complete waste of airspace. At the same time, though, the LPL continues to dominate the west, and Korea was at one of its strongest periods ever in 2014 (arguably the best, but that’s a long discussion that will probably end in a fistfight).
When Inven Global spoke with Fabian "GrabbZ" Lohmann last year — one of the people closest to bringing greatness to Europe — about LEC’s chances at Worlds, his pessimism was rooted in one idea.
“It's the same story for three years. European teams do well, after getting absolutely smacked in scrims against Asian teams. And every single time, fans have the impression that this is the new providence. Whereas the teams that have shown that progress like Fnatic 2018, G2 2019 — we go through pain against them in the boot camps”, he stated. “The regional strength is very different because China and Korea have the option to scrim each other. Let's say we have four good teams in Europe: they have 10 they can scrim. That's just the reality of it. And this will not suddenly change. It didn't change last year, it didn't change the year before, it won't change this year.”
It won’t change in 2023, either, but we can at least close the gap some. A few more top players and teams to practice with, could mean the difference between a miracle run team like 2019’s G2 Esports winning or losing when it matters.
New orgs, new horizons
Expanding the league could mean increased viewership, as new audiences, which follow and support their favorite teams with fervor, get attached to the LEC. Already in the ERLs, there are exciting new potential suitors for the LEC spots. Take this video, for example, in which Ibai Llanos’ team KOI defeats Karmine Corp and Rekkles to 350K peak viewers:
The fan bases of teams like Karmine Corp, KOI, and Movistar Riders are very impressive. Viewership of events like the SuperLiga and LFL already peak higher than the LCS. Many of these teams have social media presences that surpass some top LEC teams like MAD Lions and Rogue. And that’s their fan bases when there’s only an ERL trophy on the line; imagine what it would be with LEC steaks and potential Worlds and MSI tickets. Even moderate LEC success from the hot ERL teams could mean a hefty boost to LEC viewership.
It could also help in addressing many of the viewing problems caused by franchising. Organizations that do the bare minimum to stay in the league are harmful — boring game after boring game with no chance of relegation on the line. The organizations most likely to be included in an LEC expansion, however, are large and hungry to win.
“We need to have more competition, showcasing that bad teams and their spending patterns, as well as low economic output, can easily be rivaled by their ERL counterparts. It would serve as a wake-up call for everyone involved, especially for the League itself,” said Amazing.
The healthier — and richer as a result— the scene, the bigger also the incentive to stay in Europe, instead of pursuing higher paychecks in "retirement regions". Already we’ve seen many top European players like Luka "Perkz" Perković and Barney "Alphari" Morris return to the LEC — capable of getting similarly-sized contracts right at home. Creating a more exciting league filled with additional rabid fandoms is another smart step in increasing Europe’s ability to keep top players, which in turns drives viewership higher through a positive feedback loop.
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Even though the LEC has been in a good spot for the past years, expanding it is a key step to making it more sustainable and par for an upward course for the next 10 years, and now is the perfect time. While the league is hot now, complacency can easily smother the fire. Europe needs a supercharge to keep the league interesting and, more importantly, get it back to the position of Worlds title contender.
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